Monuments and Media Matter
On Saturday evening, I was returning from the Arts and Crafts Fair in the Sultan’s Pool opposite the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and flipping channels on the TV set. I was startled to come across Donald Trump on an Israeli news show. He was calling for unity and condemning hate and violence in America. I had no idea about the context since I had not followed North American news since I left Canada just over a week ago. My response was: was that really Trump? Has he changed? DT condemned hate and violence! Even though the condemnation seemed to be simply a rote display, this seemed to be a new Trump for me, ignorant as I was of the frame for the remark. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to believe Trump had changed his spots.
When I arrived back in Canada just over 36 hours ago, I got onto my computer after I unpacked and tried to catch up on the hundreds of unread emails. Then I learned of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and White Supremacist in the “Unite the Right” rally that had instigated violence in in the small quiet college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. The following tweet of Donald Trump, usually so promiscuous in his condemnation of others by name, followed the earlier statement that I had heard. In the second statement, he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” And, as his wont, he repeated the phrase: “on many sides.” Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, claimed falsely that people on both sides showed up in Charlottesville “looking for trouble” and that he wouldn’t assign blame for the death of a counter-protester on either group. As very many commented, why had DT not named the perpetrators of the violence, the loose coalition of extreme conservatives and fringe groups that gave energy to his campaign – the alt-right?
The white supremacist, Richard Spencer, a key organizer of the torch parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, invented the term. Alt-right is “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world.” The alt-right includes white supremacism, white nationalism and the neo-Nazis, all opposed to diversity, multiculturalism as well as democracy and universalism.
Daily Stormer on his alt-right page wrote: “He [DT] didn’t attack us. Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.” Yet Stormer’s web site disingenuously insists that, “We here at the Daily Stormer are opposed to violence. We seek revolution through the education of the masses.”
These neo-fascists praised DT for not surrendering to the liberal intelligentsia. More specifically, why had DT not named and condemned the Trump-heiler and chief rabble-rouser, 39-year-old Richard Spencer and his “torch-wielding bullies out for notoriety and intimidation of “nigger lovers.” Spencer was determined to “humiliate all those people who oppose us.” Why had DT made the protesters and anti-right protesters equivalent? Abraham Foxman head of the Anti-Defamation League insisted that, “It is time to condemn racist-white supremacist neo-Nazi hatred and violence by name!”
Before I try to explore that question, let me go back and put the rally and the anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in context. The rally against the planned removal of a statue of General Robert Edward Lee from Forsythe Park in Charlottesville and a statue of Jackson from another park became the symbol of the political-right resistance to the changes that have been underway in America. It was a bronze statue of Lee on his horse, Traveller, put up, not after the Civil War, but over fifty years later during the institutionalization of the Jim Crow laws.
In the movement to remove symbols of hatred, racism and anti-black ideology, including the confederate flag and various statues of those who led the battle to retain slavery, this effort in historical correction recently received an impetus with the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House and the statue of Jefferson Davis, the ostensible president of the Confederacy, from New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ mayor, explained: “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”
The city council of Charlottesville had voted to move its statue of Lee to another location and rename Lee and Jackson Parks as Emancipation and Justice Parks, but the implementation has been delayed by court action. Charlottesville’s Circuit Court Judge, Richard Moore, issued a six-month restraining order lest the moving of the statue result in “irreparable damage to a war memorial.” As the mayor explained, “we have these two [statues] that have drawn a lot of controversy, and what we’ve heard from many people in the community, and what I believe, is that we’d be better off adding more history, creating a dynamic present that shows both the offense and the response to the offense. That creates a conversation and does not fall into what I think is the concern that, if we don’t remember the past, we’ll be condemned to repeat it.” After all, monumentalizing a person is intended to set one version of history or anti-history physically and literally in stone or bronze. No wonder statutes come alive during historiographical wars.
Individuals who are unequivocally not racists have opposed the removal of these symbols. One of those happens to be the very progressive mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer who happens to be a Jew and who has been the target of a slew of personal anti-Semitic attacks by the alt-right. On the rational level, I have read the following arguments of others:
“I do agree on the intrinsic value of historical monuments. All histories and civilizations are built on injustices, their symbols (while serving as a tribute) are an important reminder of those times. The basic difference should be past and present. A confederate statue built in the past surely must be viewed differently than a confederate flag raised today. By pulling down a statue we don’t erase a history. The second argument in favor of leaving historical monuments alone is that it is precisely pulling them down, or wanting to, that draws attention to them in the first place and ignites white supremacist ideology and the explosion of polarities we’re witnessing with such frequency today.”
“There are many existing forms of art that represent or stem from political movements, but they are first and foremost works of art and should be perceived as such – not as propaganda (e.g. cultural revolution in China).”
Fortunately, the fallacies in these so-called counter-arguments against removal of these symbols is easy enough to point out. Historical monuments do not have “intrinsic” value. The statues of Hitler, say the one in the Austrian village of Braunau Am Inn where he was born, the many statues of Lenin and Stalin, the statues of Saddam Hussein, all lacked any intrinsic value. The role those statues play in processing memory is far more important than the sculptural product.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who supported the removal of the statue of Davis, did so with the following argument: “These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it. I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it. To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in some of our most prominent public places is not only an inaccurate reflection of our past, it is an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.”
- The statue of Lee is not primarily a marker of history, but a celebration of certain values from that history and was erected to help reinstate those values in new forms.
- There is a difference between remembering all history versus revering some parts and putting them on a pedestal.
- Remembering belongs in museums, with the context provided to educate viewers, not in public places which are intended to celebrate values; this was the option the mayor of Charlottesville favoured, but to do so in place by providing supplementary monuments and a contextual frame.
- In terms of an educational role, without the context to provide that education, we only receive a deformed view of history.
- The radical separation of past versus present made by the non-racist opponents to removal of the statue is a false dichotomy, for the past is very much part of the present and is used to forge the future.
- Last, and least important, the statue is not very good piece of art, though the original sculptor was the artist, Henry Shrady, who happened to be Jewish and was the artist who sculpted the statue of George Washington at Valley Forge and created the Ulysses S. Grant memorial on the United States Capitol, both recognized generally as excellent works. However, the sculptor who finished the work on Lee in Charlottesville when Shrady died at a relatively young age in 1922 was the Italian-American, Leo Lentelli, whose work, though demonstrating great craftsmanship, is stilted and never comes alive even as it displays Lee in a proud moment of courage.
However, the key proof of the fallacy of the arguments opposing the removal of the statue were the actions on display of the racists. They came from all parts of America, some dressed in combat fatigues and openly carrying semi-automatic weapons, others with shields and batons, and still others with bottles of water that actually contained mace and pepper spray. They physically attacked the local peaceful demonstrators who supported removal of the statue and opposed the neo-Nazi demonstration.
These purveyors of violence proved demonstrably and clearly that neo-fascism is alive and well in America. Though no longer stalking the halls of academia as it did eighty years ago when the president of the American Political Science Association in his 1934 presidential address dismissed the “dogma of universal suffrage,” criticized democracy for allowing “the ignorant, the uninformed and the anti-social elements” to vote, and urged Americans to appropriate elements of fascist doctrine and practice, unfortunately the ideology is now parked in the White House.
As Ernst Nolte wrote over fifty years ago in his phenomenological analysis of the political movement, Fascism in its Epoch (in English in 1965, The Three Faces of Fascism), fascism, whether in its French, Italian (the theoretical version that I had focused upon in my recent writings) or German Social nationalist “synthesis,” were all anti-modernist, anti-progressive and anti-liberal in the name of national self-assertion, but rooted deeply in stoking fear. Although America is not going through a recession but an economic boom, though radical Islamicism is nowhere equivalent to the danger of communism, and though American fascists no longer have the model of Germany as an economic and military powerhouse – it is now an economic and ethical powerhouse – yet a resurgence of fascism in America has been clearly shown to be possible given growing disparities in income, given the hollowing out of many small towns in America and given the fears of globalization, not only in America but in Europe as well.
The time has proven to be ripe for a resurgence of fascism. It must be fought. But first it must be identified in all its expressions.